Friday, September 2, 2011

Wade Belak's Death: Time For NHL to Take a Look in the Mirror

by Kamal Panesar

As you have likely heard by now recently retired NHL tough guy, Wade Belak, was found dead in his Toronto apartment a few days ago.

His death marks the third NHL tough guy to die within the last six months—Derek Boogaard died in May and Rick Rypien took his own life last month. As such, the alarm bells are understandably sounding in the NHL and NHLPA offices.

While all three deaths are tragic, news of Belak's passing is even more shocking considering that he was thought to have his head on straight. As such, hearing that he took his own life by hanging is disturbing on many levels.

So three tough guys dead within six months. Does that mean there is something significantly wrong with the role of a fighter in the NHL?

I personally feel that while it's too soon to jump to conclusions there is no question their careers and lives need to be examined to determine if there is a common thread.

Different Situations

You can read the NHL and NHLPA's joint statement on the death of Belak and their commitment to bettering player welfare here.

On the surface, this looks like three NHL tough guys who were driven to death, perhaps because of their chosen profession. While that might ultimately be proven to be the case, I think that the three situations are very different.

Derek Boogaard had been suffering lasting effects of minor concussions for years while also struggling with substance abuse issues. His death was ruled an accidental combination of alcohol and prescription drugs.

Some will certainly point to the tough guys' job and life as a direct correlation to drugs and alcohol abuse. There are many different studies on the issue and according to some, alcohol abuse is prevalent in up to 30% of the population. As an affliction that can affect almost one third of people, I don't think it's appropriate to point the finger directly at Boogaard's role as an enforcer.

Rick Rypien, on the other hand, is a person who had well documented struggles with depression. The shame in his situation is that he was apparently discouraged from talking about it openly.

Depression, like alcoholism, is something that can affect anyone in any walk of life. Perhaps if Rypien was encouraged to talk about his struggles it would have provided a better environment for him to overcome his issues.

Sadly we'll never really know.

We don't yet know the full details of what led to Belak's death but we do know that it took everyone by surprise due to his jovial nature. So did his suicide also have to do with his role as an enforcer?

TSN's Bob McKenzie wrote this morning about how surprising Belak's death was given his personality and happy outlook. But I, for one, have experienced first-hand a friend who was a ray of sunshine, taking his life after a happy evening with friends at a dinner party.

That experience taught me that you never really know what is going in inside someone's head and being happy on the outside is not necessarily a reflection of what is going on inside.

So what happened to Belak?

Was his transition from being in the spotlight to a post-NHL career too difficult for him to bear? We don't yet know and may never find out, but what is clear is that all of these variables need to be looked at. The NHL will and should look at all three players' lives and try to find all correlations in order to determine if there really is something systemic that needs to be addressed.

But when you read Mike Brophy's excellent profile on Brad May this past week, and hear George Laraque talking about how difficult, psychologically, it is to be a fighter in the league, you have to think that fighting could be on it's way out.

Could be.

Lagging League

The NHL is the only professional sports league in North America that allows fighting, without exception.

Every other league has a complete ban on fighting with severe fines and suspensions handed out for all transgressions. So does that mean that the NHL will follow suit?

There is no question the league has been slowly edging in that direction since Gary Bettman took over as league commissioner in February 1993. But an all-out ban?

Time will tell but it's becoming more and more clear that it either has to be out or in, there is no middle ground.

So what do you think will happen? Will the league ban fighting and if so how will that affect the game? Should it ban fighting or is this just three unfortunate situations for three players that just happen to be fighters?

Kamal is a freelance Habs writer, Senior Writer/Editor-in-Chief of, Montreal Canadiens Blogger on and Habs writer on Kamal is also a weekly contributor to the Sunday Shinny on The Team 990 (AM 990) every Sunday from 8 - 9 AM. Listen live at

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(Photo by Getty Images/Getty Images Sport)


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